Compute in Comfort

If there's any term in the computing world that means pretty much anything people want it to, it's "ergonomic." Everything from mice to keyboards to wrist rests to chairs can be tagged with the ergonomic label, meaning in theory that the product improves the comfort and safety and even performance of human beings.

Alas, there's no standards body that says exactly what qualifies a device as ergonomic. And the situation gets even more confusing when you take into account the differences in human beings: A mouse for a right-hander may not work for a leftie. A mouse for somebody with big hands may not be right for somebody with dainty digits. That goes for mice, chairs, keyboards, screens--anything you interact with physically. One size or even shape definitely does not fit all.

Exhibit A, as presented by Steve, is the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 from Microsoft. It's a big keyboard and a bit wider than the regular model, so if you're right-handed you'll have an extra reach to get to your mouse. Angela's fine with that; it gets you moving, which ergonomic pros say is important. Steve's not so sure. What's fascinating to him is that if you keep the plastic stand on the front, the keys tilt down from the front to the back--which is precisely backward from Microsoft's original so-called Natural Keyboard. Steve likes the feel of that tilt as well as the tendency the Microsoft model has to keep the user's wrists straighter left and right.

Angela disagrees, finding the original tilt more comfortable. She does, however, like the back and forward buttons for Web surfing, and allows that some folks will appreciate the zoom switch for enlarging what they're reading, though she hears that doesn't work very well with Internet Explorer. (Firefox has a command built in to accomplish this, though she doesn't really use that either.) The numeric keypad's a cut above average as well; it has its own backspace key and parentheses and an equal sign. But it doesn't have a way to move the cursor, which means you'll be grabbing for the mouse again. If that bothers you, you'll notice it particularly when doing serious number crunching.

So what should you be looking for in terms of ergonomics? First the obvious one: If you're hurting, something's wrong. You can get a repetitive strain injury from doing something as simple as typing or clicking the mouse. If you do find yourself in pain, try to figure out what's wrong and fix it, though naturally that can be easier said than done.

Both Steve and Angela have had their own adventures in ergonomics. Steve once experienced severe wrist pain on a book deadline and ended up having to stop typing for several days because his hands wouldn't stop hurting. Angela's wrist problems are chronic, and for a while she used a wrist rest that had two little platforms on wheels that rolled along a track in front of the keyboard. (Yes, all the other reindeer at that magazine used to laugh and call her names--until they tried the device themselves, after which they tried to steal it. Fortunately, it was clamped to the desk. We digress.)

Even when you get the keyboard under control, the mouse can bite you. Steve is familiar with the problem, and Angela (who blames the tiny eraser-like pointing stick on a long-ago ThinkPad for setting off her wrist problems) has tried everything from mice to trackballs to pointing sticks to touchpads. Some people go even further, switching to dictation software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Steve's a fan, in fact, and uses Dragon--reviewed in the very first show of the season!--when he's got a lot of copy to move quickly.

Of course, you're better off not getting into a situation where this happens at all. A lot of "ergonomic" stuff boils down to simply using common sense and doesn't necessarily cost money. For example, it's a good idea to keep your wrists as straight as possible when you type, with your arms parallel to the desktop--hence the pillow on Angela's chair, or the keyboard "return" on Steve's computer desk. Monitor height is another problem; in general, the top of the display should be about eye level so that you can keep your neck straight. But a lot of monitor stands put the screen lower than that. You may need to put your monitor on some sort of stand--or even a couple books you're finished reading. Notebook computers are a particular problem in this respect, so Steve (but not Angela) suggests keeping those in your lap as you type.

The segment continues....

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